- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

NEW ORLEANS They used to be all jazzed up about NBA basketball in New Orleans. Then basketball moved from Voodoo City to Salt Lake City, seeking salvation.
Now the game has returned again to New Orleans, and they're hoping that the move of the Hornets will establish the league this time in the Louisiana city.
So far, it hasn't exactly been Mardi Gras every night.
The Hornets hardly have taken New Orleans by storm. They have averaged 15,040 fans after nine home games, which ranks them among the bottom half of the NBA's 29 teams. Besides that, the more than 10,000 pledges received in the drive to beat out Louisville, Norfolk, St. Louis and other prospective cities for the Hornets actually wound up about 2,000 short when it came time to pay the bill, leaving them with a season-ticket base of about 8,500.
The lukewarm reaction in New Orleans so far may illustrate that the NBA's willingness to allow franchise movement as freely as it has the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis two years ago may not result in greener grass on the other side.
"I'm not turning any back flips or anything like that," Hornets owner George Shinn told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "But I think you have to look at the whole picture. I've been through this before, and we had a similar situation in Charlotte, but we had the advantage to work it for a couple of years."
It's not because the team has been losing on the court, either. The Hornets, led by point guard Baron Davis, are a talented squad (44-38 in their lame duck season in Charlotte last year) that is favored to compete for the Central Division crown. They are 11-6, 9-0 at home and 3 games out of first place in the Central.
Still, the Hornets are optimistic that ultimately the franchise will be successful in its new home. "We've had a sensational reception here," coach Paul Silas said. "People have welcomed us with open arms everywhere we go."
P.J. Brown, a high school basketball star in Winfield, La., who went on to play at Louisiana Tech, is also convinced the Hornets will win over fans. "This is a great place to play basketball," he said.
Contrary to perceptions, the former incarnation of the NBA in town the Jazz was not a box office disaster. During their tenure, from 1974 to 1979, the Jazz's attendance was average by league standards between 11,000 and 13,000 a game for four of the six seasons they played in New Orleans. In their last season in New Orleans, they drew about 30,000 fans for games against the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers.
The reason they could draw such record single-game numbers was because they played in the Superdome. Of course, one of the reasons the Jazz wound up losing about $1million a year and moved to Salt Lake City was because they played in the Superdome.
They were never able to generate much of a season ticket base in the cavernous facility, plus the basketball team often wound up near the bottom of the list for good home dates at the dome.
"The Superdome situation was untenable," said Thomas Willingham, a Baton Rouge businessman and former vice president of business for the New Orleans Jazz. "They got the majority of their revenue from football, and then came the boat and car shows. Sometimes we would have to make three-week road trips, and that doesn't build crowds at home."
It was still fun while it lasted, though, primarily because of the floppy-haired kid from LSU who is still the face of basketball today in this state, nearly 15 years after his untimely death Pistol Pete Maravich.
When the NBA expanded to New Orleans in 1974, it was natural to engineer a trade with the Atlanta Hawks for Maravich to come to New Orleans. Pistol Pete had become a nationwide phenomenon during his time at LSU, averaging more than 40 points a game throughout his three-year varsity career. His 44.5-point average in 1970, his senior year, remains an NCAA Division I record.
His best NBA years were with the Jazz. He was an All-Star in four of his five seasons in New Orleans and led the NBA in scoring with a 31.1 average in 1977. Maravich put on a show befitting a colorful town like New Orleans. "Pete gave us a national image," Willingham said.
The Hornets were not shy about tapping into the Maravich legacy, recently retiring his number even though he never played for the franchise. But the Hornets are hoping that their stars Davis, Brown and Jamal Mashburn will become the new faces of NBA basketball in New Orleans. The franchise made a major move toward that end by agreeing to a six-year, $84million contract extension with Davis during the summer. When the team was leaving Charlotte, Davis said publicly he wanted to be traded and indicated he was not interested in coming to New Orleans. He changed his mind after visiting the city and having dinner with Mayor Ray Nagin.
"How many people have dinner with the mayor?" Davis said. "The vibe here was great. People were excited about us. The people here love basketball."
The only thing that people may love more than basketball is everything else. This is the Big Easy, a place where excess is the norm. It's a state with a revolving door between the state capital and state prisons. Former governor Eddie Edwards just entered prison. One previous attempt to bring an NBA team back to New Orleans the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995 failed when the company, Top Rank, went bankrupt on the verge of closing the deal. Former Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz, who led the Top Rank group, was later indicted along with Edwards on influence peddling charges in Louisiana in a case that included the Timberwolves deal.
This time around, they simply followed the "Field of Dreams" philosophy they built it, and they came. The New Orleans Arena was built in 1999 with the hope of bringing an NBA or NHL team to the city. When the Hornets failed to get a new arena in Charlotte, they began looking for suitors, and New Orleans, with a new arena in place and an attractive deal that included 55 sold luxury suites, won the bidding. The state also agreed to spend another $10million on improvements to the $112million arena.
The team hit the city this summer with a public relations blitz and community service programs. They unveiled new uniforms with "Mardi Gras gold" that only carry the city's name on them and not the team's nickname. It's clear the team has plans to change its name, and there has been some sentiment for trying to get the Jazz name back from Utah. Jazz owner Larry Miller has said he would consider selling the name back to New Orleans if the Hornets in turn give their name to a proposed expansion franchise in Charlotte. Shinn, however, has downplayed that possibility.
They could wind up being called the New Orleans Hangovers, with a homecourt advantage that no other team can rival in the league.
In Charlotte, the Hornets barely played .500 at home last year, going 21-20. So far this season the Hornets are undefeated at home, and the whispers are that New Orleans, with Bourbon Street, downtown casinos and a daily party atmosphere 24-7, 365 days a year, could take its toll on visiting players.
"We've heard that in various circles, and that remains to be seen," general manager Jeff Bower said. "I think an NBA player is going to have himself ready to play.
"Then again," Bower said with a wink and a smile, "they are also human."

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